Lesson 3: Don’t Do It Alone
I recently spent a week in the middle of India facilitating an extraordinary leadership immersion programme created by The Hunger Project. Instead of attending courses at Harvard or INSEAD, twenty leaders from a large financial services company went to India to learn about leadership from women elected to serve on their local village councils (‘gram panchayat’).
I learned a lot from these women but to my surprise the most impactful was what the world needs most from me as a man. There were seven lessons in total. This article is the third in a series.
Pana-bai is now serving her second five-year term as an elected woman representative on her ‘gram panchayat’. By now she is a seasoned professional at the business of politics. Even more impressive was her recent election to President, despite coming from the lowest caste.
Like any politician she faces plenty of critics. For Pana-bai it has been a group of men from the privileged castes who aren’t used to women making decisions and having power. They accuse her of ‘behaving like a king’.
“Yes, I am behaving like a king!” she says with a laugh. “I’m getting things done.”
Her advice for other elected women representatives is to collaborate. Even a force of nature like Pana-bai cannot do it alone. Working together is the only way to overcome the enormous resistance they face on the job.
Her story is typical. Ten years ago she was uneducated wife living at home in seclusion, kept indoors by her husband and mother-in-law.
To her surprise, Pana-bai’s family supported her first election campaign. Maybe they thought she’d just be a rubber stamp and come home early. But a decade of meetings and of campaigning for change has meant lost wages and others stepping in to do her household chores. The family complained from time to time but now they support her.
The male elected representatives presented the next hurdle. At the start of Pana-bai’s first term, they prevented the elected women from sitting on chairs during meetings. The symbolism of women at the men’s feet on the floor was powerful. They soon created a united front and negotiated the right to use chairs as equals.
The men also insisted the women remain veiled during meetings. But communication was difficult because the women couldn’t be heard properly and their facial expressions were also hidden. Collective persistence by the women wore down the male attitudes, and the veils soon came off.
Pana-bai passes on these lessons to her sisters, encouraging them to work together to make things happen. For example, her protégée Lada-bai had been single-handedly trying to close down the illegal, and troublesome, drinking den in her village. Lada-bai’s concern was for women’s safety, both when their men came home drunk, and for girls vulnerable to sexual assault.
But the men put her off with threats of a beating. She went to her mentor Pana-bai for advice. They decided to gather as many women as they could from the neighbourhood to ‘pay a little visit’ to the bar. Large numbers of angry women turned up, forcing the grog shop to close.
The bootleggers have adapted by moving their den further away and keeping a low profile. But the elected representatives assemble a crowd of sisters whenever the men get rowdy. The women make life so uncomfortable the bar has to shut down again. Although the problem has not disappeared, they feel able to concentrate on other issues.
The Hunger Project has focused heavily on delivering this message of collaboration to all elected women, as we saw at one of their regular training sessions. Led by the formidable Ganga, a trainer who has worked with thousands of women around the country, about thirty representatives were divided into groups of five, each gathered around a pile of stones. Ganga’s instruction to each group was to build the highest tower possible from the stones.
You could see most women in each group were hanging back, leaving it to the assertive ones to build towers on their own. The best result we could see was four stones high.
Ganga inspected the results and announced, “Sisters, always remember one thing: if you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
She instructed each group to do the exercise again, this time electing a leader and working together collaboratively. Not surprisingly they all built much higher towers.
It was a simple exercise but the women were ecstatic. Those of us observing were affected too. So much so within two weeks one of the executives on the trip asked a hundred of his sales people to do the same exercise at an offsite back home.
“I saw university-educated, sophisticated people have the same insight as village women,” he said. “We all learned that on your own, you can do so much less.”
For my part, I cannot stop thinking of how many times I’ve wandered around lost rather than ask for directions. Or made a mess of a DIY job rather than call a mate for advice. Asking for help has always seemed like a sign of weakness for me. A lot of men I know feel the same way.
A few years ago I was running a consulting firm, and struggling to manage a period of rapid growth. A senior colleague cornered me in the board room one day and suggested there was a better way than trying to do it all myself.
I politely told him to mind his own business. But his intervention stirred me up. I’d been telling myself I was in control, though I knew deep down I wasn’t. I thought admitting I needed support would mean I was a failure, as if I was supposed to be always perfect, know what to do and never need collaborators.
Where did these crazy ideas come from? Probably my father, a lone wolf in almost everything he did. He almost lost his business twice by doing it alone.
Fortunately, I soon got over my pride. I formed a leadership team, bringing in others (all women) whom I’d been keeping at arm’s length. To my delight they put wind in my sails, becoming invaluable partners running the business. I have never felt so empowered.
I still tend to go it alone and keep control. It’s not natural for me to work collaboratively. But now I have a big vision to fulfil: men working, living and loving well, for boys and men to thrive.
I must remember Ganga’s words, ‘If you want to go far, go together.’
Watch out for lesson #4 coming soon: Courage is Overrated
The Hunger Project is a global NGO committed to the end of hunger and poverty by pioneering sustainable, grassroots, women-centred strategies and advocating for their widespread adoption in countries throughout the world. In India they coordinate the training and development of the most marginalised elected women leaders for the entire five years of their tenure in office, enabling them to be effective in ending hunger and poverty in their villages.